Rorate Caeli

“Questioned, deaf to criticism...” -- A Tense "End of Reign" Climate in Francis' Vatican

“Questioned, deaf to criticism...” The end of a lonely reign for Pope Francis

Le Figaro
Jean-Marie Guénois
May 13, 2022

Francis listens but likes to decide alone at the risk of isolation.

ROME - Never before has Pope Francis faced such adversity. In this year 2022, the tenth of his pontificate, everything seems to be conspiring against him. Rome, always quick to burn what it adores, is in turmoil. Some discern a mature phase of the pontificate. Others see an "end of reign", according to an expression common in the Eternal City. Many are already thinking about what comes next. But Francis, 85 years old and very combative, is far from having said his last word. A great worldwide Christian jubilee is in sight for 2025. Above all, he is preparing his major reform: that of "synodality" for 2024.

He hopes to convert the pyramidal, centralized and clericalized Church into a more democratic, decentralized community where power will be shared more with the laity. Will he succeed? This ambition arouses support and admiration among some and thick skepticism among those who are familiar with the arcana of a two-thousand-year-old institution built on centralization. Is this reforming, flamboyant and divisive pontificate at its peak or is it in decline?

All pontificates experience this same upward and downward curve. What counts for the Church is the scope of a pontificate. From this point of view, the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, with their qualities and defects, are still very much alive.

High tension in the Vatican

Didn't they leave a lasting impression on generations of faithful and clerics? It is and will be the same for Francis. In the ecclesiastical milieu, no one dares to judge prematurely the course of things. "The phases of crisis are not necessarily the worst," observes a young cardinal, a man of God, working in the Vatican; "they open up to realities of the Church that we cannot see at present. The Lord does not abandon his Church."

Hope is there, especially among Christians, but the word "crisis" is still conceded. For some, the crisis has been there ever since the election of Francis. It is more recent for others, including among the Pope's supporters. All agree on the climate of high tension that reigns in the Holy See and whose intensity does not diminish, in contrast to the image of bonhomie conveyed in the world and which has changed the image of the Church. 

There are obviously powerful antagonisms with Francis, linked to his strong personality, reputed to be "divisive". His "sharp" character, his "authoritarian" style are the daily lot of a Vatican where one hears these qualifiers. There are also papal "tantrums" and many say they are "terrorized". 

There are also, more objectively, a series of difficult dossiers that sometimes shed a harsh light on the pontificate. A long-time Italian observer, who has seen and heard a lot in Vatican City, summarizes them in one word: "confusion." A "Latin American-style" confusion that "European minds" are finding increasingly difficult to grasp. In these whirlwinds, the first question dominates, that of the Pope's health. 

A knee immobilizes him

"It should not last," his doctors assure him, although they are not certain. The idea of a surgical intervention was considered, but it would appear too risky. Unable to bear the pain - the Pope made his first confidences on this subject at the end of January - Francis finally agreed to undergo infiltrations on May 3. He suffers from gonalgia, an acute inflammation of the ligaments in his right knee, a direct consequence of his structural problem of sciatica in the hip, which he corrects with every step. He said he was "humiliated" by this immobilization. He even refused for a long time to appear in public with a crutch and worse, in a wheelchair. But one step became an ordeal. At the general audience on May 4, he again had help by giving his assistants his arm, barely able to move his right leg. On May 5, he finally gave in and allowed himself to be wheeled in front of the cameras, which he used to do before, but out of view of the camera. As for the aftermath of the intestinal operation he underwent on July 16, 2021, it is not really known. 

The Vatican is buzzing with the most alarming rumors on this subject because it was a very heavy surgery, much more difficult than expected. It is impossible to see clearly, because of the lack of reliable information. The Pope has objectively assumed all his commitments since the end of his convalescence in the summer of 2021. Including three international trips, Hungary and Slovakia, then Cyprus and Greece, the island of Malta, finally, in early April. But the major international trips planned, notably South Sudan in July, Canada in September, are to be confirmed. As for Lebanon, it has just been officially "cancelled" but the Vatican had never confirmed it because of the political instability. So nothing can be deduced at this time. 

In a book of dialogue, The Poor to the Pope, the Pope to the World, published [in France] by Seuil on April 1, Francis confided: "Until three years ago, I ate everything. Now, unfortunately, I have a serious intestinal complication, acute diverticulitis, and I have to eat boiled rice, boiled potatoes, grilled fish or chicken. Simple, simple, simple..." 

Russia got angry with him 

Simple, but things are getting more complicated in other ways. Starting with the formidable Russian and Ukrainian file where the head of the Catholic Church focuses on him a worldwide misunderstanding by mitigating Russia's role and blaming NATO for its "barking" in Ukraine that would have "angered Russia". As a pope, he pleads for peace through negotiation. He castigates war, but without denouncing the aggressor. As a convinced pacifist, Francis attacks the arms race and the use of weapons but refuses to pronounce on the legitimacy of the Ukrainian armed defense. In any case, he does not want to endorse the supply of arms. Especially coming from the United States... An untenable position for which Francis pays a high price. 

He also knows that he would be reproached for his silence if he remained silent. However, he succeeded in angering Russia on May 3, with whom he did not want to cut ties. That day, in an exclusive interview with Corriere della Sera, Francis asked to meet Putin in Moscow to tell him to stop the war. The same request had been made unsuccessfully through Vatican diplomatic channels in mid-March. This time the Pope wanted to take the world as a witness. This exasperated Russia. The Russian government curtly retorted: "This kind of question should go through diplomatic channels." Even harsher was the riposte of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow, which Francis had publicly involved in this interview following their video conference exchange on March 16: "It is deplorable," explained the Moscow Patriarchate, "that the Pope chose such an inappropriate tone to put a reserved conversation in the public arena." 

The Pope and the Vatican are now isolated on the diplomatic scene

This indicates a decline in the influence of the Catholic Church. A Latin American expert based in Rome comments: "This pope imagines that he could, by his mere presence during trips, solve geopolitical problems." A passing presence, even a charismatic one, consoles one day but never solves anything. There is a Vatican pretense of thinking itself capable of resolving the world's conflicts.

It is said that Francis had not necessarily consulted his diplomatic staff, well educated on the Russian and Ukrainian issues, before taking such a geopolitical position in the foremost Italian newspaper. The famous Roman curia, once feared, is regularly bypassed by Francis. Here, too, Francis wanted to shake up an established order by launching, back in 2013, a vast "reform of the curia." His reform will take effect this June 5, the day of Pentecost. At last count, and before it is implemented, the reform is provoking "a lot of internal resistance," says a senior official, with "a kind of strike of zeal." This little story says it all: many were disturbed on March 19, St. Joseph's Day, to see the official text of this reform of the Curia published in the Vatican without any advance notice or press conference. It was a text that had been awaited for years, the new "apostolic constitution" entitled Praedicate evangelium, that is to say, "Proclaim the Gospel". It was the fifth time in two millennia that the Catholic Church reformed its central government in this way. 

Instead of a finished document, it was a text full of errors and substantive mistakes that was published, much to the dismay of Vatican lawyers. Even the Vatican communications department was caught off guard. In fact, the day before, Francis decided to publish it on his own, on March 19 - the day of St. Joseph, for whom he has a great devotion - without taking into account its state of completion. 

A "typical" behavior, says a Vatican official, where the Pope manages a lot of things directly "without always taking advice, his services having to execute". 

 A "wind of equality" is blowing 

Such a hitch is a detail in the face of the scope of the reform. It brings about significant changes. The most important is to place all the ministries of the Roman Curia on the same level. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was the highest ministry in dignity and importance, is relegated to a position behind that of the dicastery of Evangelization and just before a new dicastery dedicated to charity and humanitarian action. This means an abolition of hierarchies within the Vatican ministries. All are considered equal. This is the new spirit desired by the Pope: before talking about doctrine, the Church must be "pastoral" and help people - the way a shepherd would care for his flock, and not like a teacher of virtue who corrects his students.

Another key point, imposed by the pope, but currently hotly debated by important cardinals, is the fact that a lay person, male or female, can now lead a Vatican ministry. This office was previously reserved for bishops and cardinals for fundamental theological reasons related to the very constitution of the Catholic Church. Another important change is that the former prime minister, the Pope's first servant but also the head of the Roman Curia, will keep his title of "Secretary of State", but he will become a simple Secretary General of the government whose only power will be to coordinate the ministries. He will no longer be above them. 

In this reform, the power of the Pope is thus very clearly reinforced. In the end, it is he who decides almost everything. The Roman Curia as it was, a central administration of power, seems to have been decapitated. The last key point of this reform, which institutes, in passing, a rigorous economic control, is decentralization. The Vatican remains the Vatican, but it is at the service of the episcopal conferences, the national structures of the Church in the world, and no longer overhangs them. Except for questions of "doctrine, discipline or the communion of the Church," the episcopal conferences will be able to decide on local matters without referring to Rome. This is what the pope calls in his new constitution "a healthy decentralization". He sums up his reform in one word: "the synodal spirit". 

Synodal effervescence 

The "synod" is indeed the great reform of Francis. The word means "assembly". It is part of the oldest Christian tradition where all decisions were made collectively under the leadership of the community leader. The Orthodox Churches have kept this tradition. A patriarch - that is the title of their head of Church - however powerful he may be, cannot decide anything without the vote of his holy synod composed of the bishops. This collective, democratic spirit, involving the faithful, men and women, Francis wants to instill it at all levels of governance of the Catholic Church, parish, diocese, episcopal conference, Holy See. To this end, he has launched a special synod on "synodality" in 2021 throughout the Catholic Church. It will take place in 2022 in all dioceses. A final and decisive session will take place in Rome in October 2023. It will vote on proposals that Francis intends to implement at the dawn of 2024. 

Inspired by the governance of the Orthodox and Protestant churches, this "revolution", if it happens, would be a complete change of culture in the Catholic world, which is used to following the decisions of the hierarchy. It is deeply worrying in Rome, in view of the current experience of a local synod in the German Church, which is competing with reformist audacity on sensitive issues: marriage of priests, acceptance of homosexuals, the place of women. The Vatican is watching, but it seems to have lost control over this initiative. 

Pope Francis has warned the German Church against going off course, but curiously he has appointed a prelate who supports the orientations of the German synod to the key position of "rapporteur" of the next Roman synod on "synodality". It is the Archbishop of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Hollerich, a Jesuit very close to Francis who will be created a cardinal in 2019. He has repeatedly spoken out in favor of a change in the Church's discourse on homosexuality "the positions of the Church on the sinfulness of homosexual relationships are wrong," he believes, believing that the next synod will also have to revise the way of talking about ethical issues. Last January, he confided to La Croix that "homosexual priests" should be able to "talk to their bishops without their bishops condemning them". He also asked: "As regards celibacy in the priestly life, let us ask frankly if a priest must necessarily be celibate?" These words earned him public protests from another outspoken cardinal, Australian Cardinal George Pell. In mid-March, he called on the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to officially intervene against Cardinal Hollerich's remarks and against similar positions taken by the president of the German bishops' conference, Georg Bätzing, who is leading the famous German synod which has become, in reality, a sort of Church laboratory. 

Against going backwards 

Visions of the Church are opposed to each other and openly fight each other under this pontificate. 

The Pope did not pose as an arbiter. He is on the side of reform, as he confided last September to Slovak Jesuits he was meeting in Bratislava. He told them of his "suffering" at seeing the "ideology of going backwards" in the Church, especially "in some countries" because "freedom is frightening", he said. It was the fight against this "ideology of going backwards" that also motivated his decision to put a regulatory stop to the development of parishes according to the Tridentine rite, a French and American phenomenon, in July 2021. This did not go down well in the traditionalist world. However, he will be uncompromising. "I will continue in this way," he told the Jesuits, speaking out against young priests who, "as soon as they are ordained," ask the bishop's permission "to celebrate in Latin. They must be made to "land on the ground," he hammered. 

The line is hard. A French group of about thirty mothers of priests, aged between 60 and 70, has just walked from Paris to Rome to ask for a softening of this reform. Only one of them was able to greet the Pope on May 4, during the weekly general audience, along with a hundred other people. One minute for mothers of that age who walked with all their heart for eight weeks, covering 1,500 kilometers, is still not much to give for a pope who preaches "mercy." 

"I am still alive" 

Another French illustration of this papal will to counter "the ideology of going backwards" is the appointment of the new Archbishop of Paris, Mgr Laurent Ulrich. He is in line with Francis on many issues, including immigration, and breaks de facto with the legacy of Cardinal Lustiger. Bishop Ulrich's first decision will undoubtedly be to launch a synod in Paris as he did in Lille and Chambéry, his two previous dioceses. The Pope's choice has come as a shock to most of the 500 priests in Paris, especially the young. But these priests would not be here without the prophetic action of Cardinal Lustiger, who came from a Jewish background and who took over a declining diocese from Cardinal Marty from 1981 to 2005. Without Lustiger and his legacy, the flourishing Church of Paris - which also has its major flaws - could be comparable today to the twilight Church of Brussels, which opted for progressivism, notably under the leadership of Cardinal Godfried Danneels. Deceased in 2019,  and very active in the conclave of 2013, the latter was one of the key men in the election of Pope Francis. He placed him at his side during his first public appearance on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica on the evening of March 13, 2013. 

Two visions of the Church, then. Certainly complementary but rather opposed at present with, at the center, the question of the priesthood. In Rome, many wonder if this synodal, less pyramidal Catholic Church will be able to remedy the drop in priestly vocations. They are only holding steady in Africa and in some Asian countries, but they have dropped by 28% over the last ten years in Italy... This is a red alert in the kingdom of Catholicism and now in the Vatican. 

 A Vatican that is not doing well, in fact. 

There are all these files and then there is another affair that poisons the atmosphere. One case too many. It is the ongoing trial in the Vatican court of Cardinal Angelo Becciu, former number 3 of the Vatican, dismissed by the pope in September 2020 for a real estate investment in London. The sessions show that this senior official had acted, for this imprudent investment, under the orders of ... the Pope. The verdict is far from being pronounced, but in this small world of the Vatican, "confusion" is indeed at its peak. In this poisonous atmosphere of "end of reign" some cardinals are preparing for the future or rather... the next conclave. Pope Francis himself acknowledged this in front of his Slovakian Jesuit friends. His words, recorded and published in the leading Jesuit magazine, La Civiltà Cattolica, are certain: "I am still alive," he told them, "notwithstanding those who would like to see me dead. I know that there have been meetings between prelates who thought that the Pope was doing worse than what was being said. They were preparing the conclave. Be patient! Thank God, I am well."

Already there are "papabili" 

This pope is frighteningly well informed, because he knows how to find things out. This also creates an unbreathable climate of suspicion in the Vatican. In fact, several meetings of this kind have taken place. As is normal. In 1998, when John Paul II's Parkinson's disease was recognized, the same scenario occurred. However, these meetings denounced by Francis do not only involve "conservatives".

 Mark Massa, an American Jesuit, held a meeting in Chicago on March 25 and 26 with prominent cardinals and prelates from around the world, which was intended to be very discreet, even secret. The idea was to understand the "opposition to Francis". Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, who was there, told the National Catholic Reporter afterward, "This 'opposition to the pope' is trying to build walls, to go backwards, to look at the old liturgy or things from before Vatican II." 

Father Massa advocates for "synodality." It is "the most important thing," it will "eliminate the process of recourse to Rome," and clarifies, "We want to show that the opposition to Pope Francis is to a large extent an opposition to the Second Vatican Council." Caricatured remarks in which no one in Rome can recognize himself. The Church is more subtle than this black and white vision. This American initiative underlines what is at stake in the synod on synodality, which is indeed shaping up to be Pope Francis' last and greatest battle, even if he is immobilized. 

As for the lists of papabili, they are beginning to circulate in Rome. It is a habit. They have never contributed to the election of a pope. Two names are coming up: Cardinal Matteo Maria Zuppi, archbishop of Bologna, from the Sant'Egidio community and very close to Francis. And, surprisingly, the rather conservative Cardinal of Budapest, Péter Erdo. 

This is pure speculation. One thing is certain, however: with the next class of cardinals that Francis will name this fall or next spring, this pope will have chosen two-thirds of the cardinals in the next conclave. That is the majority needed to elect a successor. "Francis is following everything, down to the last detail," warns one of the collaborators.

[Source: Le Figaro]